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How Good Leaders Give Great Compliments

I was speaking with a client recently over coffee when she raised a point that really inspired me. As we were discussing the role of constructive criticism at work, she offered a solid argument: “If you can’t think of a compliment for someone, it says more about you than it does about them” This struck […]

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Giving compliments

I was speaking with a client recently over coffee when she raised a point that really inspired me. As we were discussing the role of constructive criticism at work, she offered a solid argument:

If you can’t think of a compliment for someone, it says more about you than it does about them”

This struck me because, as a behavioral specialist, I have noticed this phenomenon during workplace interactions. And it is something I would encourage leaders to pay particular attention to, because focusing on the negative is a very common pitfall when dealing with underperforming employees.

Balancing Constructive and Negative Feedback

To better illustrate my point, here’s an example:

Yasmin meets with some new potential investors. She comes well-prepared and makes a strong case to sell the company’s new product line; it’s based on solid research, speaks to their consumer’s pain points, and her pitch is clear and strong. It does, however, seem a little ‘sales-ey’ – perhaps she pushed a bit too hard at the end, but we won’t know till next week when they come back with a decision.

Later, she and her boss Tess are by the coffee machine. “Nice pitch, Yasmin – just try not to seem so eager next time,” says Tess.

Tess believes she’s delivered effective, constructive feedback and helped Yasmin up her game. But in reality, Yasmin feels uneasy and slightly confused – she understands what she did wrong, but has no idea what she did right. In fact, she’s not even aware she did anything right at all.

What do you believe Tess could have done to deliver more effective criticism?

The Power of Compliments

It might seem quite clear-cut, but the answer lies in balancing constructive and negative feedback: research suggests that an ideal mix is not actually 1:1, as intuition might suggest. Rather, it’s closer to 6 positive comments – compliments – to every one piece of negative feedback. Leaders who gave more praise than criticism in meetings, to be precise, were able to better motivate their teams by working with their strengths rather than focusing on their weaknesses.

While this exact ratio is open to debate, I feel this 6-to-1 rule is a good reminder of how leaders can avoid this very common pitfall of over-emphasizing the negative at work. After all, development is not solely about ‘fixing what is wrong’ – it’s about continuing to encourage our employees, and sparking that desire to improve in the first place. It’s about building trusting, healthy connections in our teams, and boosting others’ confidence so that they feel equipped to further themselves professionally.

Ingredients for a Good Compliment

As much as we would like to see ourselves as approachable, encouraging, and motivating, the ability to give great compliments doesn’t always come as naturally as we might think. Anybody can give general, cursory compliments to ‘meet their quota’, but a truly good compliment is made up of several key ingredients. Here are a few tips for delivering constructive criticism that really means something:

  • Compliment small, but worthwhile things. There’s no need to save your compliments for your team members’ most ground-breaking achievements. To be honest, a huge achievement is generally something that your employee or colleague has been complimented on multiple times before, making it less impactful. A genuine compliment – even on something seemingly trivial – can often express your admiration for something bigger. 
  • Expect nothing back. A genuine compliment has no hidden agenda. When you commend, praise, or flatter someone simply because it’s warranted, your words become more meaningful and you may just be making their day.
  • Be genuine. It sounds obvious, but sincerity is the key to a compliment that will build your relationships. Why? Because relationships are based on trust, and a hollow, cursory, or overdone compliment is the opposite of that. If you don’t mean what you say, others will begin doubting your intentions and they’ll have a hard time believing you the next time around.
  • Make it clear what you’re complimenting. Use details and be precise when you’re expressing your admiration or appreciation. Broad statements are easy to make, but your message is more personal and helpful to others when you take time to specify what you’re referring to. For example, “Nice work in that meeting,” might become “Your presentation was inspiring because you spoke with real confidence.”
  • Say it, don’t save it. We hold back more often than we may realize. As a leader, you may notice plenty of things that are worth complimenting each day. Frequently, however, we don’t verbalize those thoughts despite the fact that they might be valuable positive feedback. Commenting on the positive things you think or notice, when you notice them, will put that information out in the world and can save your employees a lot of guesswork in the long run – while motivating them to up their game.

So, why not challenge yourself to be a better complimenter? The next time you’re at work, try commenting on a colleague’s great performance or their solid reasoning. Find what he or she is doing right, and be clear, genuine, and specific. You may be surprised by the positive impact you make!

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